.- Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Lebanese-born nun who has lived nearly 20 years in Syria, is travelling the U.S. advocating for peace and reflecting on how the conflict has affected life in the region.
It is “terribly, tremendously” difficult to be living away from her community in Syria, she reflected Nov. 17.
“We have a very, very familiar way of communitarian life, and our community is in need, it's a new community. We were founded in 2000, so they need their superior, they need their mother. But the Lord has supplied: they are like heroes; I consider this community to be heroes.”
Mother Agnes is the superior of St. James the Mutilated monastery in Qarah, located 60 miles north of Damascus on the road to Homs.
Qarah, which was captured by the Syrian regime two days after Mother Agnes spoke with CNA, had been under the control of the Free Syrian Army, a moderate rebel group, for over a year.
The monastery is home to 20 nuns of the Unity of Antioch, and is also sheltering 32 Sunni refugees from al-Qusayr, she told CNA. Because of the violent unrest in the area, she cannot return to the monastery.
“They are trapped,” she said. “They cannot go out and I cannot come in, because all over this region we have bandits and undisciplined elements. So they cannot go out and I cannot come in, until the situation is better.”
Before the war, she explained, “we had 25,000 visitors” annually for spiritual retreats and other events. “We were building a new youth hostel to receive pilgrims, and it was our income; we had also a store, to sell what we produce – icons, garments, hand crafts, also agricultural products. All of this has stopped, so we have no income at all.”
During a talk she gave at St. Rafka Maronite parish in Denver, Colo., Mother Agnes explained that the Free Syrian Army “reported to us one night in June there was a plot to abduct me … it is the FSA who protected me, and put me outside” the city.
Islamists rebels, such as al-Nusra Front, had infiltrated the area, and were planning her abduction, she said, noting that the armed opposition “is not one faction.”
Because the FSA has not given her “the green light to come back,” she is unable to return to the monastery, and the people there are unable to leave, she said. “We are like in a siege.”
Mother Agnes said she now works in neighboring Lebanon: “I paint icons…and we have a kind of market outside Syria.”
The community at Qarah has been shelled by both helicopters and tanks, and Mother Agnes reflected, “we've had other examples in Syria where convents were destroyed, nuns or monks were killed, but we are praying the Lord to prevent this, to spare it.”
The Syrian conflict has now dragged on for 31 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader of the country's Ba'ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people. There are at least 2.2 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
An additional 6.5 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
The Syrian rebels are made up of a large variety of groups, including both moderates and Islamist extremists, as well as Kurds.
Qarah has strategic significance in the war; its location on the road from Homs to Damascus makes it key for supply routes. The Syrian regime's army had begun an offensive to retake the city Nov. 15.
Mother Agnes described it as “very dramatic,” and said that during the battle, her community was “out of communication. We are praying they remain safe, they have a kind of shelter. We have 50 people there, we hope that we will not hear bad news, we are very worried.”
During the conference held at St. Rafka, Mother Agnes said the monastery, since the war began, was “there to help people.” It continues to help liberate prisoners held for their beliefs, and provides refuge to displaced Muslims.
Mother Agnes was born in Lebanon, to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father, who became a refugee in 1948 when Israel was created. She described herself as “a victim from the Palestinian conflict,” as well as the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and in which Syria was a participant.
She joined the Carmelites in 1971, and in 1992 received permission to serve the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Two years later, she travelled to Syria to begin establishing a monastic foundation, restoring the monastery, which dates to the 6th century.
Though it was at first hard to be in Syria, which had taken part in the civil war in her homeland, she said, “I have been converted, to talk now on behalf of the Syrian people; it is out of a conversion of love.”
“We’ve lived in Syria for 19 years; we have been, little by little, driven to know the Syrian people, and to love them, because we are serving them.”
At St. James the Mutilated monastery, she said, “we work for peace, for unity…we work for the unity of all the sons of Abraham, Jews Christians and Muslims.”
Qarah is an apt place to carry out this work for unity. The town has a history of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, and was once home to a Jewish community.
“It's a very antique village,” Mother Agnes told CNA. “The mosque was previously a church, and before that a temple; it was made a church by St. Helena. We have another church that was completely looted, where there are frescoes from the 11th century.”
Mother Agnes told the conference attendees that the “real victim” of the Syrian civil war is “the Syrian population … the ignored victim of the conflict,” whom she said “has completely attracted, and converted us.”
She recounted the story of meeting a mother whose son was long-disappeared during the war. After much waiting, the family finally received a call saying he would return, but the next day his body appeared, in a bag, mutilated and cut up.
“This kind of population, I would like to serve. And in our constitution, our rule of contemplative (life), our order, we have one article that says the necessity does not have a law; when something is a necessity, an emergency, there is no law.”
“My necessity, my emergency, is the Syrian people. I will help them, I am invested. Even though I am not Syrian, I have asked (for) Syrian citizenship,” she concluded.
“In the name of Christ I am completely dedicated to the cause of peace and reconciliation among the Syrian people, that's what I do.”